Packers prepping for major challenge from stingy Saints defense

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Saints LB Demario Davis

GREEN BAY – The Packers scored a touchdown less than nine minutes into the regular season.

The Saints didn’t give one up until almost 119 of the first 120 minutes of their season had expired.

That’s not to say Sunday at Lambeau Field will be some irresistible force vs. immovable object type of matchup.

But it’s not an exaggeration to say a Packers offense that had been rather effective and efficient through two games, until the fourth quarter in Atlanta last week, will be facing one of its toughest tests – probably the toughest of least the first half of the season, if not on the entire schedule.

“Fast, physical, aggressive, very sound,” Head Coach Matt LaFleur said in describing the New Orleans defense. “They’re going to challenge you on all three levels.”

That’s because they have top-shelf, household-name defenders on every level, from Cam Jordan (three-time All-Pro, eight-time Pro Bowler) up front to Demario Davis (four-time All-Pro) at middle linebacker to Marshon Lattimore (four-time Pro Bowler) at corner and Tyrann Mathieu (three-time All-Pro) at safety.

That group was less than two minutes from not allowing a touchdown through two games before Carolina scored one Monday night in desperation mode, which clearly peeved coach and defensive architect Dennis Allen on the sideline.

Regardless, in the 20-17 triumph that improved them to 2-0, the Saints extended their streak of not allowing more than 20 points in a game to 10 straight contests, dating back to last November. That’s one game shy of the longest such streak in the league in nearly 30 years.

The last team to top 20 points against them was the Baltimore Ravens, with 27 in Week 9 last season.

“Their whole defense in general is a veteran defense,” Packers QB Jordan Love said. “They’ve all played together for a while, so they definitely know what they’re doing and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.”

The unit did just lose starting safety Marcus Maye to a suspension, so an adjustment will be made there. But in general, their defensive success is predicated on being able to put steady pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush and keep seven in coverage. But the looks are always changing in terms of who’s rushing versus covering, and when it comes to the cover guys, they’re pressing at the line of scrimmage to throw off the timing of routes as best they can.

“I told our guys on the perimeter, they’re going to grab and hold and that’s what they do,” LaFleur said, adding that even with what might be a zone coverage call, “they’re still going to get up in your grill and challenge you. They’re a confident group.”

The Packers are carrying their share of confidence on offense as well, despite the fourth-quarter struggles that cost them a very winnable game against the Falcons.

In two games, Love has thrown six TD passes without an interception, and only one of his 52 pass attempts so far has come close to being picked. He leads the league with a 118.8 passer rating despite receiver Christian Watson‘s absence to date and running back Aaron Jones missing the Atlanta game.

Jones has not yet returned to practice from his hamstring injury, but Watson has, on a limited basis, last Friday and again on Wednesday. Green Bay’s offensive line does still remain in flux, though, with left tackle David Bakhtiari not practicing after being a late scratch in Atlanta due to knee swelling, and left guard Elgton Jenkins considered week-to-week with a knee injury.

LaFleur wasn’t revealing how the Packers would line up in front of Love come Sunday, only saying the coaches are discussing the “best five” they want out there – which could mean moving the versatile Zach Tom from right tackle and adjusting accordingly from there. Rasheed Walker and Yosh Nijman both took snaps at tackle last week.

The additional injuries on top of the rough fourth quarter in Atlanta have already dealt Love a dose of adversity, and the stout Saints defense is sure to bring more in his first start in front of the home fans.

As LaFleur said, “That’s just the nature of this game.” Every test is part of the process.

“It’s all about how you respond,” LaFleur said. “I’ve been super-impressed with how he’s done, just in terms of leading our team, leading our offense, and the poise he’s shown and command.

“I can see his confidence growing every time he gets out there.”

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